• Peripheral Histories

Shoshana Keller - Connecting diverse cultures across Eurasian history

For the final post of our teaching series, we spoke to Shoshana Keller, Professor of Russian and Eurasian History at Hamilton College. Shoshana's research focuses on Soviet Central Asia and she is the author of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence and To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 1917‐1941. She teaches courses on Russian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian history. You can find out more about Shoshana's teaching and research on her staff page.


PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests

I have been studying and teaching about Russian/Soviet/Eurasian history at Hamilton College since 1995. In graduate school at Indiana University I was focused on Soviet Central Asia, but started to branch out in the late 1980s when IU’s Russian and Eastern European Institute asked me to speak to area high school teachers about the wars that had just erupted in the Caucasus. At that time everyone was scrambling just to cope with the names of these peoples, since few Western historians had been able to study the Soviet Union beyond Russia and Ukraine. I needed to quickly learn just enough about Georgians, Abkhaz, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis to convey the basics to the teachers, and I loved it.

I have always been excited to think about the amazing breadth and complexity of the relationships among peoples across the Eurasian landmass. Another moment of revelation I had in grad school was sitting in a bar on the Arbat in Moscow and watching a crowd of drunk Russians trying to dance like Georgians. That showed me that cultural influences ran two ways, and that looking at the USSR as solely a Russian project left out a lot.

My dissertation and first book were about Stalin’s campaign to destroy Islam in Central Asia (mostly Uzbekistan). My generation of graduate students was the first to get wide archival access, and we were obsessed with the Stalin period. Since then I have expanded into the post-Stalin decades, when we can analyse creative forces as well as destructive ones. I am also pursuing my interest in how the Russian Empire and USSR functioned as multi-national wholes.

PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?

Score of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

I have found that research and teaching feed each other. Since I teach at a small liberal arts college I have an unusually wide range; being free to teach whatever I am interested in is one of the major reasons why I wanted a liberal arts teaching career rather than a research-focused career. So right now I am teaching a survey of Russian history from 860 to 1861, and an introductory course called “Murder, Civil War, and Opera,” which is built around Modest Mussorgskii’s opera Boris Godunov. We look at the history of Ivan Groznyi and the subsequent Time of Troubles, then consider how the first Russian historians interpreted that history, how Pushkin turned Karamzin’s interpretation into a play, and how Mussorgskii made the play the basis of his opera. I just finished teaching a “history workshop” on making historical maps with Adobe Illustrator, which comes directly out of my experience with the Russia and Central Asia book. Courses on the modern Middle East, modern Russian/Soviet history, seminars on the USSR as a multi-national state and Russia’s agonizing over its identity between Europe and Asia, and another introductory course on the Silk Road, round out my regular repertoire.

This may sound incoherent, but it is not at all. Teaching the full 1200-year history of Russia has enriched my understanding of my particular research areas enormously. Teaching a survey of the modern Middle East and the Silk Road course has pushed me to see connections among Turkic, Iranian, and Slavic cultures—all of which intersect in Central Asia—that I could not have seen otherwise. My research interests compel me to highlight to my students the interactions of multiple peoples that we see all the time in what are supposedly “national” histories. For example, Tatars and Cossacks played important roles in the wars of the Time of Troubles, while in the middle of it all in 1608 the Mongol Oirats sent an envoy to Moscow to inquire about trade possibilities. Some of the protagonists in this period, including Boris Godunov, were descended from Tatar-Mongol families who had entered the service of either Russian or Polish-Lithuanian rulers and converted to Christianity. One of the insights that I regularly emphasize to students is that the Western fixation on race is very much a historical artefact. In pre-modern Eurasia the boundary that mattered was religion, not ethnic identity. Unlike further west in Europe, once a Tatar converted to Orthodoxy he or she could be fully absorbed into the ruling elite.

PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?

Russian history is a terrific topic for interrogating the idea of “centre and periphery” because Russians themselves have been so vexed about the concept. The chronicles of Kievan Rus routinely call the Turkic steppe nomads devils who attack the Christian centre, but if you read the texts carefully you see regular references to intermarriage and fluency in each others’ languages. Turkic warriors served as border guards for Kiev against other Turkic groups; descendants of these guards formed the nucleus of Cossack communities that fulfilled the same function for Muscovy. While Muscovy was famous in Europe for its xenophobia, I suggest to students that Russians may have been so guarded to their west partly because they had such fluid southern and eastern borders. By the 18th century, Imperial Russia had more clearly marked borders and two cities that formed a political and cultural centre. However, the location of “the periphery” was complicated by the elites’ regarding Russian peasants as being just as culturally alien as more distant Chuvash or Kazakhs were. St Petersburg elites recognized Baltic German and Georgian nobility as “one of us” much more readily than they did lower-class Russians.

However, getting students to imagine a multi-layered model of different kinds of peripheries is easier than giving them a narrative of centre and periphery that does not come from the Russian point of view. We have few texts by Central Asian or Caucasus people describing exotic Russians, and many of the ones we do have were written by non-Russians who had been thoroughly Russified in their education. The Russian state was the active party in expanding from Poland to the Pacific, and that has shaped the narrative in ways modern historians cannot undo.

PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?

The sheer multiplicity and complexity of Eurasian peoples makes giving students substantive information that does not leave them so baffled they just shut down quite a challenge. I cannot possibly include everyone in a syllabus, so I try to focus on the peoples whose interactions changed the political and economic environment on a larger scale. Students already find Russian names a trial; adding Uzbek and Georgian names to the mix is even more confounding, but unavoidable. It would be very helpful if we had more texts by non-Russians in English, but the many linguistic challenges of that project is making for slow progress. And of course any time you add new material you have to let go of cherished old material. I am an old fashioned historian in the sense that I believe students need a political history framework within which to understand social and cultural developments. However, there are plenty of periods in Russian or even Soviet history when the rulers at the top were not where the main action was. Instead, when talking about the expansion of Russia eastward or the emergence of a stable, modern Soviet society, the activities of millions of ordinary people at local levels are more important than high policy.

PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?

Russians were the dominant actors, and trying to play that fact down would be a huge distortion of the history. However, the many non-Russian peoples also played an active role in creating these societies, which we can document in a lot of detail for the modern period. An inclusive approach emphasizes the extent to which “Russian” history was never just a Russian story, but resulted from the interactions of Slavs, Turks, Caucasians, Siberians, Jews, and more across the continent.

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